Tuesday, Sept. 16
Driving the road that connects Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, with the western part of the country is a lesson in Cameroonian agriculture.
Plantations take over the roadsides: Rubber trees in perfect lines, with little buckets attached to the trunks; Palm trees, which produce the palm oil that Cameroonians use to fry anything and everything; Banana trees, each hoarding a large green bundle of fruit waiting for harvest; And hundreds and hundreds of plantain trees.
Agriculture is such a driving force in Cameroonian economy and way of life that I wanted to visit one of these plantations. So I hired a guide to show me a tea plantation in the town of Buea, at the base of Mount Cameroon. Sam, an American I met in Buea who is studying mother-to-child transmission of HIV, joined me. (Check out Sam’s blog.)
The “tour” was pretty disappointing, since we saw the tea plantation only from the road. Tourists no longer are allowed to enter the property or the factory. Still, it was a pretty sight:
Our guide, Ferdinand, ended up being worth the pretty penny he charged because he offered knowledge about how the tea industry has changed and insight into other aspects of Cameroonian culture.
For years, Cameroon’s tea plantations were run by a branch of the federal government called the Cameroon Development Corporation, which owns plantations of various crops across the country. But the government sold the tea fields to a private company a few years ago.
“We thought privatization would make the working conditions better,” Ferdinand said as we looked out over acres of lush green tea plants. “But instead it made them instantly worse.”
Since privatization, wages have dropped and workers no longer live in housing on the plantation, he said. Instead, they rent homes in town.
Cameroonians don’t see much of what’s produced here anymore. Under government ownership, the tea was available locally for purchase. But now, most is exported, and the rest is sold in-country in mass quantities that aren’t practical for the typical store owner. So Cameroonians stick to (imported) Lipton tea, coffee or Ovaltine.
Ferdinand, a hunter-turned-guide who gave up shooting monkeys and elephants when it became illegal a decade ago, also accompanied us for a walk around the part of Buea where he grew up. There I noticed something I had never seen before in Cameroon: many of the homes displayed, prominently in the front yard, a grave. (Friends who weren’t previously aware of my fascination with graveyards, now you know.)
The burial sites weren’t simply markers or crosses sticking out of the ground. They were full-body graves, with mosaic tiles creating rectangular shapes in the earth to accompany headstones. (Too sensitive, unfortunately, for photos.)
It’s customary to bury the father and mother of a household very close to the house, so relatives can easily seek out their spirits for guidance, Ferdinand explained.
I was familiar with the concept of burying the dead inside a room in the house for that same purpose, as required by traditional religions that revolve around ancestral worship. But in front of the house? That was a new one, and I wondered about it aloud.
It stems from the tradition of in-home graves, Ferdinand told me. But as an increasing number of people in the region adopted Christianity, locals began burying outside instead. As Christians, they no longer wanted the spirits in the house, he said.
I tried to imagine how this would go over in the States. What if, to pay a visit to a friend’s home, you had to side-step around the grave of their grandfather?